Welcome to the belated #TheoryThursday! I was going to write this yesterday but I had an unproductive day of building dumb things in Kerbal Space Program. Yestoday's question comes from @longwalkdownlyndale again, and it deserves to be quoted in full:
Do you think modern free market capitalism is doomed? Will it eventually be overthrown? Or has it proved it's resiliency? After all we didn't exactly overthrow the government during the most recent economic crisis.
There's about three parts to this question that aren't precisely identical so I'll answer them in reverse, but first let me omit the word "free" in the phrase "free market capitalism." It will only lead to unnecessary complications.
Certainly, capitalism has proved its resiliency (it hasn't been overthrown in my lifetime). One of the main features of capitalism Marx admired – you read that right – was its ability to thrive on rapid growth and change. Feudalism was a system based on, if not quite stagnation, then a very controlled, restrained growth. Look up the statistics on the "total economic output of humanity" – about 70% of it comes from the 20th century, and 25% from the 21st (so far). The effect is far too strong to attribute merely to population growth: under capitalism, technology and industry have progressed far faster than any other social order, and aside from a few socialist revolutions here and there the underlying economic system has been largely unperturbed by this.
Or has it? When did capitalism start and feudalism end? Obviously this was not an instantaneous worldwide event: feudalism in Russia and China persisted essentially until their respective revolutions, when it had long since given way to capitalism in Western Europe. Let's say, for the sake of an argument, feudalism ended and capitalism began in England in 1660, when the Tenures Abolition Act definitively replaced the last traces of serjeanty (where farmers were required to perform military service for whoever owned the land they farmed) with socage (farmers merely had to pay rent on the land). This makes feudalism in North America so short-lived that capitalism has been its only economic system (ignoring, as so many historians do, the American Indians), so something like capitalism has been around at least since the 16th century. So capitalism has been the dominant system of England and the Americas since the mid-17th century. That's, let's see, less than four centuries? Feudalism is often said to have been the dominant system in Europe from the 9th to the 15th centuries (six centuries), and existed in some form for a century or so before and after that period. Maybe capitalism isn't so long-lived and resilient after all.
So, is the overthrowing of capitalism inevitable? I'd certainly like to think so, but this is one area where I disagree with Marx (and most of my fellow armchair Marxists) and say no, I don't think there's anything inevitable about large-scale social revolution. That's why I want to work towards it.
"So you don't think capitalism is necessarily doomed then?" you ask, excitedly. Well, yes actually, I do, and not because of any socioeconomic theories. This is where I go out on a limb and get a bit more Malthusian than science can necessarily confirm, but go back earlier. There are three major trends of capitalism:
1. Uncontrolled population growth. This is being somewhat reigned in by having a sixth of the human population living under an admittedly brutal One Child policy, but we've still added each new billion people to our population faster than the last. Populations in developed nations have largely stagnated, or grow through migration, but this life of luxury was built on the backs of the developing nations, and the thought that they can free themselves of economic hardships alongside us, rather than exporting these hardships to other countries as we did, seems ahistorical.
2. Uncontrolled resource consumption. The most concerning resource, of course, is that slimy black liquid we drill into the ground to funnel into our internal combustion engines, but we use all resources at increasing speeds. Even our addiction to burgers is eating through increasing amounts of our agriculture, food that could perhaps be better used to feed people. Developed nations at the top of the capitalist system are responsible for more than their share of this consumption, and though this trend is also decreasing, it's still decreasing primarily as we export our industries overseas. We outsourced our carbon footprint.
3. Uncontrolled scientific progress. I am loathe to speak ill of science, but it seems increasingly willing to hand us powerful tools before we fully understand the damage they can do. The atom bomb is the obvious example – we had no idea how radiation poisoning would play out in the people of Japan – but it seems that the real planet killer was the invention that's been quietly altering our atmosphere while tightening the leash it holds around our economic progress.
The chic opinion is that the third trend will cancel out the other two, that the very science which has created these problems will eventually solve them. This seems like a naïve underestimation of the problem. Let's say science does come up with a silver bullet - we can quickly (in a decade, say) remove excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, and there are no unintended side effects like destroying the ozone layer or sending us into an accidental deep-freeze. The mere system shock of such a solution could easily cause a massive disruption in numerous microorganisms in the ocean, which would fan out into significant dips in fish populations that are already overestimated and stretched thin, in turn starving fishing societies and putting primarily fishing-based economies through a severe depression. Would this by itself be the end of capitalism? Not likely. Would it lead to social unrest and possibly be a catalyst for revolt? Seems reasonable. And that's charitably assuming we only have one major ecological disruption from our so-called "silver bullet." Abruptly fixing climate change won't bring back the species that have been wiped out, and doesn't guarantee the species that are in decline will rebound. If the bees don't magically come back, we're still pretty fucked.
The truth is, even if there will be a silver bullet, we have two choices: assume the problem needs solving now at a social level or assume the problem will be solved later at a technological level. If we choose the former, and we're wrong, it was a lot of wasted effort to build a society that's less ecologically destructive, more stable, and able to better care for its citizens. If we choose the latter, and we're wrong, well, I hope there's still time for the first option. My guess is there won't be, because for the people advocating against worrying unduly about the problem (aside: you notice these people always seem to have an economic interest in not fixing the problem. I wonder what's up with that...) there will never be a time when they concede that technology won't save us if we just keep waiting. The ocean will be lapping at their front door and they'll say "I've just had the most ingenious idea to solve global warming. We'll build a wall to keep the ocean out!" And they'll build a wall to keep the poor out of their dry land, and then their personal chef who lives on the other side of the wall will wash away and they'll starve because they forgot how to cook for themselves.
Fiction aside, the real problem is that, truth be told, we don't know what point it's "too late" to fix the problem. Climate scientists have been consistently, deliberately underestimating climate change out of a fear of appearing too extreme and apocalyptic. And even if we take their word, we still can't really know the full effects of the limited amount of warming we have to accept, even if we fixed everything we do bad right now. And even if we're past climate change, we still have a finite planet with finite resources and a socioeconomic system that hinges on unlimited economic and population growth, and that seems distinctly uninterested in trying to expand outwards from our planet to another. I hate to sound bleak, but it's hard to see capitalism as not being doomed. To me, it's a choice between a centrally planned, low-to-no-growth economic system, or a decentralized collapse more akin to the fall of the Roman empire.
EDIT: Sorry, Ello's Markdown does not appear to like the usual Markdown format for blockquotes.